This being Neil Young, it only makes sense he should follow his most difficult, haunted and out-there record in years, 2010’s Le Noise, with one of the easiest, most carefree and down-home releases of his career.
You could argue there’s simply not much needs be said about the latest in Young’s Archives Performance Series, A Treasure, a live compilation drawn from his 1984-85 tours through the heartland of Reagan’s America with the band of country veterans he dubbed the International Harvesters. For the most, this is music to be felt more than thought through. Good simple songs about good simple things, to tap a toe to, drink a beer to, wipe away a tear to.
On the other hand, when you step back and consider the context, A Treasure becomes more than just a collection of countrified tunes delivered with gloriously ragged enthusiasm. This album is the sound Neil Young makes when you push him.
These recordings date directly from the period when Young, infamously, stood about to be sued by his own record company, Geffen, for willfully making “musically uncharacteristic” records. The troubles commenced with his baffling, vocoder-led 1982 label debut, Trans, but really blew up over his intended 1983 follow-up, the Nashville-recorded Old Ways (not to be confused with the drastically reworked album of the same title that was eventually released in 1985).
When Geffen rejected that for being “too country” and asked for something “more rock and roll,” Young’s answering fuck-you came in two parts. First, he greased his hair into a parody quiff and handed them an ersatz 1950s rockabilly LP, Everybody’s Rockin’. Then, without his label’s backing, he gathered together the best country band he could, and hit the road to play the countriest songs for the countriest audiences in the countriest venues possible. Most of A Treasure was recorded away from the regular rock circuit, out at state fairs, rodeo arenas and on country TV shows. This, folks, is what happens when you tell Neil Young not to play country music. He goes and plays it.
The plainly gorgeous, Harvest Moon-y opener, “Amber Jean,” one of five previously unreleased songs, sets the tone. Written for Young’s newborn daughter, it’s a daddy singing to his baby about all the good things that await her. The order of the day is family values, love, home, work.
Sure, the band plays with rare fire, and the singer has this strange glint in his eye. After hearing the tearing version of “Are You Ready For The Country” preserved here, in fact, it’s difficult to return to the song’s Harvest incarnation without finding it wanting and weedy; the International Harvesters cut roils with a joyful venom reminiscent of Young’s Time Fades Away era. Equally, a frayed reprise of “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” is plausibly more exquisitely sweet than Buffalo Springfield’s original.
But, on the whole, there’s no long haired weirdo stuff. No llamas or conquistadors or spacemen or Aztecs, no tired-eyed drug deaths, no Nixon, no students getting shot. The closest to “protest” is the slightly ugly “Motor City,” where the protest is that there are too many damn Japanese cars on American streets. And when it comes you can hear the baited, recession-hit crowd baying in agreement.
And here’s where, back in the mid-1980s, it got difficult for some Neil Young fans. While playing these hootin’ and a-hollerin’ shows, Farmer Young was also suddenly praising Reagan and, notoriously during Aids’ first grip, dropping poisonously homophobic comments in interview. Never mind that country’s high lonesome end had always been an essential component of his DNA. For some, all this combined was like watching the man who sung “Ohio” jump tracks, to join forces with the rednecks who blew Captain America away at the end of Easy Rider.
As often with Young, what in the hell was actually going on remains impossible to fathom. It could be that, after Geffen trying to force him one way, he’d just swung out in the other direction, like a wrecking ball. Listening back 21-years on, though, the question fades. It’s the music that you hear. Clearest of all that, in the International Harvesters, Young had found a band that fired him up like few outfits outside Crazy Horse.
Young’s guitar is here, of course, but cedes ground to blind pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins and, particularly, Rufus Thibodeaux’s show-stealing fiddle. Their interplay on a reworking of “Southern Pacific,” Young yelling final announcements like a demented Casey Jones, blows the neutered version Crazy Horse recorded for re-ac-tor clear off the tracks. Strangest of all, though, is how straight and lifeless the rerecorded Old Ways album that Young finally cut with these guys sounds compared to their live shows.
If you want to quibble, you could bemoan the decision to make this a cut-up compilation, with songs drawn from different concerts, rather than a straight document of one night. Equally, among the unreleased tracks, I would gladly have ditched three – “Soul Of A Woman,” a slightly plodding big blues vamp that points in a direction Young would explore far more fruitfully soon with The Bluenotes; the comedy country-by-numbers “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking”; and the pious, slightly cloying “Nothing Is Perfect” – to make room for another not included: “Interstate,” one of Young’s most desolate lost songs, which found its definitive shape with the Harvesters.
Warts, ugly cousins, blazes of greatness and all, however, A Treasure makes a perfect snapshot of this ornery, shapeshifting moment. Certainly, there’s no arguing with the other unreleased song, “Grey Riders,” a spooked, weird run through “Ghost Riders In The Sky” territory, cannily sequenced as the closing track, and not merely because the Harvesters shift to a new pitch of intensity. Here, as though he can hold it back no longer, Young’s guitar begins wrenching loose, in mangled, restless, rusty squeals. You could call it the “classic Neil Young” sound, if there was such a thing. But as the howl comes slicing through, it sends out a clear signal. Things were about to change. Again.